27 Nov

From Novi Sad, Serbia, A Proposal.

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Hello. It’s November 27.

I am in Novi Sad, where three years ago Kulturanova did a Serbian-language version of my play Open House, which is performed in homes.

I’m here in the aftermath of the November 8 US election, wondering what to do. I’m talking to people about former President Milosevic, current President Nikolić (possibly worse, depending on who you talk to), the future of this place, and our place in the future. I think maybe the project will be called Language Reversal, and will be about translation of time, history and words.

Language Reversal is going to be (I hope) created through a series of conversations among Serbians at a table with an American and a translator, about three things: the onset of fascism under Milosevic and Trump; the ineffectuality of language as an intimate mediating tool between cultures; a philosophical treatise on the value of being together, and making culture, despite what our histories may not share. We will stage conversations over two trips to Serbia, plus three in the US, over the next six months. From there I will put together a text that will be translated into both languages.

Background

In the US we are facing the possible onset of fascism. It may or may not come to pass. It’s a test of our wills, a fight between the nihilism and chaos that leads to the crackdown, a presentation of ourselves as limited and unexceptional, far beyond the due date of that ideology. One Wikipedia post about Milosevic: “Milošević exploited nationalism as a tool to seize power… while not holding any particular commitment to it.” Sound familiar?

A very  smart artist, Melissa Potter, who has worked in Serbia a lot says she thinks of Trump as “Milosevic without the IQ.” In the US we are on the brink of a truly plural society – meaning more than one – rural/suburban and urban, white people in the minority, elite and uneducated. The cities go blue (in two senses of the word) and the country goes red, and the system set up to control for extremism, to wrest power from its most extreme elements, does the opposite. The popular vote is the cosmopolitan vote, with its flaws intact. The electoral college goes for the idiot, but maybe out of habit, out of a lingering sense of exceptionalism. We have lost ourselves.

Serbia is being held at bay from the EU, last to be invited into the failing experiment known as unity. Both countries harbor and cleave to long-dead myths. We are coming to an unraveling we cannot stop from happening. Is progress real if only some of us are lucky or privileged enough to see it? Nothing is self-evident. We started destroying ourselves so long ago.

What Are We Doing? 

I started thinking about this project right after Trump’s election, when I had the first of two visits to Serbia planned, and didn’t have anything prepared. I am trying to make sense of this time by being somewhere unfamiliar, where I don’t speak the language and where I don’t really know what has been done.

22 Jun

In Praise of Unresolved Work

This is something I wrote for the NEFA National Theater Project blog, earlier this year. Mallory and I are working on a book now, about City Council Meeting, and I’ve been going over some of the critical and curatorial conversations that have been had about it, by us and others.

Please enjoy and disseminate as needed.

IN PRAISE OF UNRESOLVED WORK

“Recently, in Keene, a philosophy and humanities professor we worked with on the project pushed me to articulate something to his students that he could not, in response to the ones who were bored, confused and uncomfortable with the piece. I think I was finally able to articulate what City Council Meeting is: it’s a community-engaged performance that brings people into a room, who might not get together, and asks them to perform together. It’s also a kind of Cagean, partly-adversarial experiment, created by three artists who wanted to try and see if we could pull it off.

To the professor, I said: in an age when people are constantly told that activism and purchasing are one in the same, asked to simplify themselves for the sake of tests, jobs, teams, and other activities, it’s a valuable thing to have an experience that is complicated and unresolved. It’s good to feel frustrated and confused by something that has been crafted for you to consider.

I think it’s important to support this kind of unruly work.”

19 May

Dwayne Calizo

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Last summer, I got to sit with Dwayne Patrick Calizo​ in the park by Yerba Buena Center, in San Francisco for a couple of hours. I was expecting we might be there for a half hour, maybe 45 minutes. Dwayne was becoming the centerpiece of our version of City Council Meeting at Zspace the next week. Our conversation would maybe lead to some material. I was slightly impatient to get the job done when I got there. His generosity of spirit, his complete honesty and openness made the whole day slow down.

We talked about the changing face of his city, about how good his mother looked at 80, how he used to be a back-up singer for notorious and famous people, about how his friends had become his family, about a lot of other things. We were watching the city he knew become replaced by a ghost image of itself. We made a eulogy for the city he arrived in that no longer lived the way it did; I didn’t know it would become a eulogy for him, too.

So few of our NYC friends got to see Dwayne sing Dido’s Lament at the top of the risers, beautifully co-directed by Mallory​ and Erika​, designed by Jim​. The light blasted all of us at the end. I think I was nervous about the cost of the instrument. Dwayne shone on his own, and I can’t imagine how many people have been lit by him at one time or another.

Dwayne died the other day, unexpectedly. This is what we made together. Much love.

 

Dwayne Calizo – for City Council Meeting: San Francisco 

By Dwayne Calizo and Aaron Landsman

August 2014.

This text was spoken by a 15-year-old boy. Dwayne and I made it out of our conversation in the park. In the show, every time Dwayne got uncomfortable with what was being said, he rang a bell on his desk, like the kind you see in old hotels. We moved on to the next sentence. 

City Council Meeting: San Francisco’s ending was co-directed by Erika Chong Shuch and Mallory Catlett, and designed by Jim Findlay. Presented by Zspace.

***

Dwayne Calizo. Childhood in Hawaii, Okinawa, Hawaii again. Lived in San Francisco two – or is it three – times since 1982. Most recently returned here, a year ago, after a five-year absence. Has worked with Erika’s company for many years. His voice is fair, meaning, communicates fairness. You want to believe everything.

**

Dwayne’s family had a kind of Partridge Family-style band in Okinawa, and Dwayne was the lead singer, and they would go to Tokyo and play on TV. On contests. Like American Idol?

In college he was a for-hire backup singer for Don Ho and Jim Neighbors in Hawaii.

Don Ho was a drunk. A crazy drunk. Jim Neighbors was a really kind and generous man. That is how Dwayne got through college. People like Don Ho and Jim Neighbors would come to play and hire students to sing back up.

I don’t know what the outfits were, for back-up singers. But don’t you want to know what they wore onstage? Don’t you want to be able to remember this little bit of his life with him?

If you sit in the park by the MLK fountain together, memories are alive, and also dead.

**

When he first got here in 1982 he saw what was happening in the Castro. The first wave of the AIDS crisis. He thought, “I have to leave this place or I am going to die.” So he left and came back a few years later.

His HIV status has been positive for 25 years.

Stage fright gets worse as you get older. The first ten seconds of time onstage. The first minute. Impossible to even remember.

**

Homeless for three years. He liked being homeless. He liked sleeping outside. A safe place to sleep at that time was City Hall Park, and the Food Not Bombs people would distribute food from the middle of the pond, because the police wouldn’t go out there. And so they’d all go out to the middle of the pond to eat.

There was a space at that time for queers. Punks. There were groups of them everywhere. People worked restaurant jobs and then hung out and made art. What is not to love about that?

He ran a theater company and a music school that was mostly for queer people of color, and he has suitcases of archive material from all the shows they made. He wrote five musicals, some with his former partner, who’s now his best friend. He is collaborating all the time. A conversation is collaborative. You never know where you might end up.

Once he presented 200 artists in six days at Yerba Buena. That almost killed him. He’s given up on the cycle of working for two years without a break and then just crashing. He’s laid that cycle to rest.

But he has these suitcases with all these things in them. Pictures and scripts and videos. Old tapes.

**

Dwayne was away for four years and came back a year ago and the place was unrecognizable. The place makes him want to go off the grid. He’s thinking about Detroit. The open space of. The decay. And the music history that’s there.

He puts three fingers of one hand over the center of his chest, and then points them to the sky and then places them on the ground, in the same measured rhythm. This is how he describes what singing feels like.

At the same time he is talking about the possibility of not singing any more, that this is the end of performing.

**

Dwayne’s mom is 80 years old and living in Vegas. She is still sexy as hell. Do you ever think about taking care of your mother when she is older? He might do that. She might move back to Hawaii because she is getting much older, and he might go back and take care of her with his family.

**

Dwayne lives in an SRO, which is kind of like being homeless, which probably impacts the way the city feels to him now. There is black mold in the room and it’s not safe outside and the city won’t do anything about it. People say, ‘why don’t you move.’

He does not feel a lot of hope in this place. Does admitting that become a hopeful thing? Or is it just hopeless. Even the people he knows who work in the Mayor’s housing office are just waiting to go. They don’t feel a lot of hope.

Sitting in the park by the MLK memorial fountain, we are wondering, who are all these people. I’ve never seen so many people out here. They are very normal.

 It’s not that the whole city needs to be full of fucked up people to be okay. It’s that this has been a place where young queer punk people can gather and be.

What are pathways we make that don’t look possible? What does it cost to pave them over?

When I asked him if he wanted to eulogize something about the city he said the Dido’s Lament that he’s singing is his eulogy. It’s what he’d like to say.

 

11 Oct

I’m not a ‘creative’. Creative is an adjective, not a noun. I’m a noun. I’m an artist. Everyone is creative.

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For me this is about two things: first, is just my inner cranky grammarian; “creative” is an adjective. Second is that calling someone a “creative” for me undercuts the potency of being an artist. I don’t think “artist” is slippery. It’s a noun, it’s a way of thinking of things. It’s a profession if you’re really lucky, and it’s one of the few ways you can make your life that’s not primarily about consumption and selling. I’d say teaching is another. Research is another. Maybe saving souls? They all intersect with the market but they aren’t necessarily beholden to it.

Calling someone a “Creative” for me says artists who make something out of nothing are just the same as graphic designers making a flyer for a new product, for instance. Both surely take skill and craft. But they are really different pursuits. I don’t mean to say that I think artists are more worthy than other people, just that I want my work to be acknowledged for what it is: pointless, interested in beauty and communion rather than consumption, ridiculous and worthy of consideration for it’s own sake. I do believe in the subversive nature of poetry, for instance, because we will never know it’s use value.

Someone asked me if ‘artist’ is not a similarly slippery term. “What is an artist?” “What is artistic?” And I don’t think those questions are really up to me to answer. You want to call yourself an artist? Go for it. I do, I even get paid for it (most of the time). You should, too, so should everyone as far as I’m concerned. At some point other people will judge you for it or judge your work, but that’s, luckily, most of the time, not up to me. And by “you” I mean the royal you. “Us,” “One”, Etc.

Here’s the real problem though: Who’s not creative? It takes way more creativity than I have to get through a day at a shitty job assembling things over and over again, or selling fast food to people, or fixing things, for instance. What do you have to make up to deal with the dehumanizing impact of contemporary work life? It takes creativity to raise a kid well. It takes creativity to see what Nabakov called “…everything with which god so generously surrounds human loneliness.”

By calling one set of people ‘creatives’ and by delineating creativity as a job rather than something that makes us human, the implication is that anyone else is not a ‘creative,’ ie, not creative. Like an account manager is not creative. Like a lawyer is not. A doctor, someone who digs wells. Hell, we are all making shit up all the time.

It creates a sort of hierarchy, that goes hand-in-hand with the thoroughly discredited1 creative class mythos. I’d like to return creativity to its proper role as a universal human trait. Maybe it will keep people – ‘creatives’ and non-creatives alike, from acting so incredibly stupid, Probably not, but at least we are all equally able and responsible.

1Even Richard Florida, whose Kool-Aid I drank in buckets, unfortunatelya, back in the 90’s, says he was wrong about the positive impact of creative class arguments to cities.

 aTo be fair, we were all looking for some positive news about being artists back then, after the culture wars and the NEA’s defunding of fellowships. The creative class stuff seemed like a nice balm, a way to measure value, to say we’re not just looking for handouts. Which is already problematic. What the hell is wrong with a handout?

29 Sep

Perfect City: San Francisco Postcard

Come to Perfect City’s panel discussion, October 6th.

INFO

Here is a  postcard from San Francisco.

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We wandered your city and found parts of it dying. The parts with the shine and gloss. The parts with the locally sourced food. We found ourselves eating your past. And we have to say it tasted great.

We found ourselves shopping at vintage stores, which used to be thrift stores, which sell the same clothes, just higher. We found ourselves at the taco place where meals carry the names of preppy dogs.

For years, we found ourselves recognizing the look of the people, but not the affect. We found the possibility of connection but no real words. We found ourselves treading on the cliché. We didn’t think much of it and went on our way. And now it’s coming to bite us in the ass. With artisan teeth.

We found we missed the elegant and dirty anger of 20 years ago. We found The Dead looked pretty appealing. We found ourselves at a funeral for our own myths of you.

We found ourselves unable to speak clearly. We watched city after city build and fall, rise and breathe, become derelict and then hologram.

03 Jan

Another Year, Another Pollyanish Breakfast Metaphor, But This One In The Style Of Vice Magazine.

I fucking love to make pancakes from scratch. I think they are pretty good, too, and my wife loves them also, as does my son. My son (get ready to be jealous other hipster hippie art parents who try to give their kids healthy eating habits in this fucked up consumer junk food culture) likes them PLAIN. Fucking plain pancakes. That’s how good they are.

You fucking know what else? They’re fucking gluten free, dickheads. Fucking. Gluten Free. Pancakes. That a toddler boy likes without any syrup or butter on them. BECAUSE THEY ARE THAT GOOD. Fuck you.
Okay, but here’s the fucking thing: it took a long time, hard work, experimentation and sacrifice, to get the gluten free pancakes-from-scratch recipe right. Okay, maybe not fucking sacrifice, fuck you, but all the other stuff. Maybe I just sacrificed some flour and eggs. Does that count? I don’t know.
But listen, here’s another detail to sweeten the pot: I don’t use a measuring device. I fucking eyeball these pancakes. Also? I fucking alter the recipe on a whim, depending on what I feel like, and what’s around. So fuck you and your Bob’s Red Mill. Okay? I love my pancakes, and I could make them blind, probably.
Here is what I use. I use some millet flour, some corn flour, some buckwheat flour, and if it’s around, I use chickpea flour. Some fucking walnuts. Yeah, some eggs and whatever milk or yoghurt I have around, maybe some sunflower butter, and baking powder, little salt, vanilla, cinnamon, whatever. Fuck it. I mix the dry ingredients up, then do the wet ones in a separate bowl. A little more liquid than dry overall, but I don’t know, it just fucking looks right. And then put them together, let it sit, fry them up. Fuck you. Amazing pancakes.
But look, you can’t just make these pancakes the first time, okay? Or maybe you’re special and you can. Maybe you cooked at Bouley years ago and talk about it like you were a track star. Maybe you can, but then the next time you’ll just fuck it up ‘cause you’ll get cocky. You have to commit to the fucking unknown, you have to go too far, you have to add too much of one thing and not enough of another. You have to accidentally make fucking BANNOCK one day, and then end up with some weird pudding the next, and you have to feel like you’re a fucking loser who can’t even eyeball a pancake correctly. And then you finally find it. And if you don’t know what Bannock is you can look it up.
I mean you can read a recipe. You can get a bag, read it, follow instructions, open the bag and stir and make and shit. But anyone can do that. You’re reading this. You’re an asshole. Like me. You can make pancakes from scratch. If you just fucking let yourself fail.

Welcome to 2014. This is the year we will fuck up our recipes until we make breakfasts so good that sugar-loving toddlers will eat them plain.      
16 Oct

More Questions About Detroit (And Other Places)


In particular, indigenous peoples and people of color become the occasion by which the white subject can self-reflect on her/his privilege.” – Andrea Smith,“The Problem With Privilege.”

The post I wrote over the summer about Detroit was nicely picked up by Culturebot, and was praised by a lot of my friends. Soon after I put it online, I had a conversation with a colleague in that city – also white, like me – and a longtime activist and artist. We discussed a few gaps I might have left open, a few questions I couldn’t answer, or oversimplifications I might have made. At the same time, I noticed that most of the people visibly approving or championing the post were white.

I wonder how my point of view was impacted by the access I have to certain forms of societal opportunities as an educated white person of some means. By ‘some means’, I’m specifically talking about the education I had, and the access to social and job networks granted to me by my education, and other opportunities. No, I’m not rich, but money isn’t everything.
In the last post, I wrote about artists I’d met through the Kresge Fellowships, for whom I teach a yearly workshop. My Detroit friend and colleague pointed out that, while the fellowship is of tremendous value there, the language of those fellowships – their guidelines and mission – are the language of a particular kind of cultural norm – a mostly white, mostly educated norm. Kresge is, of course, not alone here, but just my closest experience at hand.
These opportunities are great. The people who get the award, all of them, are remarkable artists, all deserving, regardless of their level of access. But as an example and embodiment of the seemingly subtle (but not subtle if you’re black or brown) ways that exclusion takes place unintentionally, without even anyone needing to discuss it, Kresge, like many grantmakers, might have some more work to do. And my practical experience in that one city brings up questions for me about the way many funders and their guidelines interact with diverse communities. I hope anyone reading this from that community can take this inquiry in the spirit of generous progress.
Another way to put it is, in a city that’s 80% African-American, the grant recipients are largely not African-American. Again, it’s not that the intentions or practices of the foundation are excluding black people by design. It’s that they don’t even have to. Nor am I suggesting that the population of grantees should necessarily be an exact reflection of the overall population, just that the disparity seems glaring. A starting point to unpack the problem is this: that the way the grant is positioned and described is race neutral, yet the results of the process are not. Because nothing is.
For those of us in the middle of it, whose intentions are 100% positive, the critique here can be mystifying. What I would say is that, if we should look at the language funders use, and the language surrounding concepts and trends like “social practice”, “community engagement” and “artistic excellence” as being in part specific to a particular set of people, then issues of unintentional exclusion might start to make more sense. Or, put another way, as an African-American colleague said to me at a conference recently, “Social practice. We’ve been doing social practice for a long, long time. We just didn’t call it that. Now we can’t get in the door.”
I don’t know answers for Detroit. I’ve seen and read work by people like Grace Lee Boggs and Invincible, Allied Media and the US Social Forum, as well as smaller collectives and even individual activists like Bill Kellerman. I’ve met and loved the work of artists and gardeners galore, and I’ve been visiting with my in-laws for a bunch of years. But in the larger discourse, I keep seeing a kind of blind adherence or a resignation to market principles (profits over people, business start-ups over needs and services, though perhaps this time couched in a comfortable scruffy hipster coffee shop instead of a casino), and to the rhetoric of ‘opportunity’ and ‘entitlement’ over justice, equality or democracy.
“…our project becomes less of one based on self-improvement or even collective self-improvement, and more about the creation of new worlds and futurities for which we currently have no language.”Andrea Smith, “The Problem With Privilege.”
There is a dynamic and almost dialectical tension in the city that is palpable and painful – between the rhetoric of improvement and the continued desperation; between the fact that people are making things happen everyday that do not conform to what we think of as renewal, but those same people are largely shut out of the official process of renewal and salvation the city proposes. Because those people are engaged in daily acts of renewal, and daily acts of resistance, does not mean they are doing okay. The system doesn’t work in Detroit. Other systems are forming. Both of these facts highlight the ongoing racial scars in our history, our present, and perhaps our future. 

The Questions
I ask readers, especially white readers, the following questions. People of color have been asking them and answering them for a long time. Whether or not you’re in the arts, these are questions I actually don’t know the answers to, and I think they’re worth thinking about. There will not be a test, or there already is.
What do you feel responsible for, politically?

What don’t you feel responsible for?
Why?
How do you benefit or suffer because of restrictive offerings?
What is the cost of making politics solely about economic impact?
What is the cost of making politics about ‘the best we can do,’ ‘the sensible solution,’ ‘the most we can hope for?’ What have we lost by our pragmatism?
What are many well intended people forgetting when it comes to race and class, when it comes to trying to remake, renew, or simply re-engage a place like Detroit?
What are the unspoken assumptions about what’s possible in the realm of what we now call “politics’, when it comes to Detroit’s future, and the future of cities in general?
How is the language behind certain opportunities offered by well-intentioned bodies – foundations and government agencies offering grants and fellowships, educational institutions offering new models, bodies politic changing governance to surmount a real problem – restrictive or exclusive to the underclass, however unintentional or covert those restrictions might be?
How are you creating opportunities for people unlike yourself to have the systemic, embodied power that you have?
Do you feel you ought to be doing “more?”
Do you feel you ought to be doing better?
What do you assume to be true about the necessity of the entrepreneurial spirit, the profit motive, competition?
What are the corollary benefits to being white, over and above the color of your skin?
Have you accidentally internalized the dominant rhetoric about poverty?
Does some part of you believe it’s a choice to remain poor?
Do you believe that there is a level playing field?
Really?
Further Reading
 

13 May

I Don’t Brand

In the last two or three weeks, I’ve been asked to be a part of several workshops or panel discussions on the importance of ‘branding.’ Know your brand, You Are Your Brand, etc. It makes me wonder if I’ve been doing something wrong, teaching the kinds of professional development workshops I do.

To me, the point of having any kind of business acumen as an artist is to free yourself of the need to be a product. It means understanding that participating in the market is not really a choice but a necessity, but that by doing it with your eyes open, you can ideally make some choices about how that participation impacts you.

The idea that artists need to “brand” ourselves with a sort of motto or image that is supposed to define how we sell our work is counterintuitive to me, as is the notion that we need to specialize. I’ve had a decent hybrid career, albeit one in which some people don’t really know what my work is at a glance, because I have been pretty steadfast in refusing to narrow down what I do too much. Other people help me do that when necessary, with a particular project.

Doing a good budget means you know what your work costs you so you don’t promise too much to your buyers, donors, users or colleagues. Doing a good proposal or Kickstarter means you can raise money you need and make your contributors feel they are part of something great. Negotiating a better contract means you both maintain some control over the important things, and give license to future rounds of artists in your position to do the same. Speaking well in front of people engenders good conversations about the work. And taking advantage of social media can just mean using another tool, or engaging your curiosity. But none of this means you have to be just one thing. It doesn’t mean you’re always trying to sell.

For the record: I think branding is a word that belongs to advertisers and it should stay that way. I find it kind of a shameful word because it conjures up what people do to cattle, and in the past what they have done to other people. To brand yourself, to be your own brand, means to me that you’re a tool of the marketplace. You’re an instrument, rather than an agent. I know I’m a bit of a killjoy with this one. Okay. I’d rather let marketing people brand the work, and leave me to just be a human being making events. I’m fine if it’s confusing to you. I’m fine if you have to spend a little more time to figure it out.